The melodic Oklahoma wind that “comes roaring down the plains” may play well in the theater but it plays pure hell on seedling peanuts.
Those harsh winds are convincing a number of Southwestern farmers to evaluate tillage practices that leave young plants vulnerable to wind-blown sand and other storm damage.
“I switched to no-till peanuts because of wind erosion,” says Caddo County farmer Glenn Propps.
Merlin Schantz, who farms with David Bailey in Blaine, Caddo and Custer counties, likes to plant peanuts into a live cover crop to protect them from wind and sand damage. Bill Coe, another Caddo County farmer, also has adopted reduced tillage for peanuts.
All four explained production practices and philosophies recently during the field tour portion of the 24th Annual Southern Conservation Tillage Conference for Sustainable Agriculture.
The conference branched out from its Oklahoma City venue into south central Oklahoma farm country to allow university and USDA scientists an opportunity to see their theories in practice.
Extension peanut specialists from Oklahoma and Georgia also commented on the trends they believe will encourage more farmers to adopt reduced tillage systems.
“If ever there was a time for farmers to use conservation tillage in peanuts, it's now,” says Ron Sholar, Oklahoma State University Extension peanut specialist.
Sholar says three factors support reduced tillage.
“The price of peanuts is down,” he says. “The price of fuel is up. And the price of the herbicide necessary for reduced tillage is down.
“Cost of glyphosate was $60 per gallon 25 years ago,” he says. “It's about half that now.”
Changes in the peanut program have reduced the price farmers expect for their crop and significant increases in energy costs make trips across the fields extremely costly.
“Early on, the price of the chemicals necessary for reduced tillage was greater than the cost of trips across the field,” Sholar says. “Now, the reverse is true, and we can make multiple applications if necessary.”
John Baldwin, University of Georgia Extension peanut specialist, says better herbicides and increased irrigation have reduced production risks for conservation-till peanuts.
“Consequently, strip-till is on the rise.”
The trend will be driven by economics,” Baldwin says, “but conservation also plays a role.”
Machinery and labor savings, in addition to reduced energy expenses, will influence peanut farmers to eliminate trips across the field.
“They can use less and smaller equipment,” Baldwin says.
He says farmers can cut energy costs from irrigation and tillage. “They can't afford to cut back on irrigation, so they're saving trips across the field.”
Baldwin says some farmers got into reduced tillage peanuts almost by accident. “In 1998, we had about 40 inches of rain in the spring, so many farmers could not get in the fields to do normal soil preparation. So they tried conservation tillage, and many have stayed with it. We probably have twice as many peanuts in conservation tillage this year than we have for the past five years.”
He says most are satisfied with the results. “Some years, they might see a slight yield reduction, but that's more related to proper timing than method. They have to be timely with peanut production practices.”
He says most farmers are using a wheat cover crop. “Some have tried rye but it overwhelms them.”
Livestock helps improve the economics. “Good cattle prices allow farmers to graze stockers through the winter and still have adequate cover to plant in.
“Most of our conservation till peanuts are strip-till, or paratill and strip till,” Baldwin says. “Farmers may paratill in the fall, seed the wheat and strip till peanuts in the spring.”
The wheat cover will not replace rotation, Baldwin says. “Rotation is key to peanut production. We have to consider a peanut production system, not just one aspect.”
Sholar says most Oklahoma peanut farmers are using a ro-till system instead of strict no-till. The ro-till works best with heavier soils, especially with runner-type peanuts, he says.
“Ro-till uses an 18-inch band of prepared seedbed that allows plants to peg similar to conventional peanuts.”
He says with sandy soil, the difference is not as great and Spanish peanuts seem to respond better to no-till on heavy soils than do runner types.
Propps uses a ro-till system and plants with a John Deere MaxEmerge planter. “I use a furrow opener in front to clear about two inches to plant,” he says.
“I had to buy no new, specialized equipment to switch to conservation tillage.”
He relies on peanuts (600 acres) and wheat for grazing for his farm income. “I can't make a profit on cotton, grain sorghum or any other grain crop,” he says.
He uses Abound fungicide, especially in fields with a history of schlerotinia. “I'm a little more cautious because of the residue on the surface,” he says.
“I've saved at least five trips across the field with reduced tillage,” he says.
Coe uses a ro-till system and says his yields for the past three years have been excellent.
“I run a ripper ahead of the planter and the ro-tiller behind,” he says.
Schantz says rotation often dictates how many reduced till peanut acres he can plant. “I have none this year,” he says. “We plant a diverse crop mixture and the good herbicides we use for peanuts may not permit planting some vegetable crops for several years. We have to look three years ahead to get our rotation in order.”
He and Bailey also use a modified ro-till system.
Schantz says saving trips across the field and gearing down to smaller equipment saves money. “But the big benefit is erosion control,” he says. “Economically, we see little difference in production costs between conservation till and conventional, but conservation advantages are huge.”
Bailey says conservation tillage offers more flexibility. “With conventional tillage, our fixed costs are much higher because of the equipment. We can reduce tillage and cut those fixed costs down and have more flexibility with variable expenses.”
Schantz likes to plant oats as a cover crop, and he prefers spring planting instead of fall or early winter. He says crop residue is more manageable with a shorter growing season. He also uses a burndown herbicide for overwintered cover crops.
“I prefer to plant in a live crop and planting the cover in spring allows me to plant the peanuts and come in with Poast to kill the oats.”
He says one of his biggest weed problems with ro-till peanuts is volunteer plants from subsequent crops. “Peas are particularly bad to volunteer and cause trouble,” he says. “Hard-seeded varieties are the worst. Guar also causes some volunteer problems.”
Mark Conklin, a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) area agronomist in the Caddo County area, says farmers here have tremendous challenges to control erosion.
“We have a lot of deep sand that, without proper management, shifts and wind moves it off fields. Crop residue management to put organic matter into the soil is critical to maintain soil health,” Conklin says.
“We have a lot of peanuts in the area and without proper soil management, conditions for cropland can unravel in a hurry. A two-inch rain can create serious erosion problems overnight.”
Conklin says most peanuts grown in the area are planted into a cover crop. “It's essential to protect seedlings from blowing sand.”
That Oklahoma wind offers significant challenges to peanut farmers who are adopting best management practices, including reduced tillage systems, to protect their crops.
Erosion and economics also encourage Southeastern peanut growers to change the way they grow peanuts.
“Conservation tillage in peanuts is here to stay,” says Baldwin.